Friday, December 21, 2007

Schiff's Beethoven (vol. 5)

I have not followed András Schiff's recent Beethoven cycle very closely. For various reasons, I made my choice to watch Mitsuko Uchida's back-to-front (and slower) cycle. Of Schiff, though, I have his opp. 26, 27, 28, 31, and 53 sonatas (i.e., nos. 12-18 and 21). It wasn't until today, listening to his Waldstein (op. 53), that I really began to like what he has done. His engaging and intelligent lecture on that sonata - available at the Guardian online source as a download well worth your time - might color my impression, though.

Schiff is solidly middle-of-the-road with his tempi. I'll use the Waldstein for an example. Wilhelm Backhaus' 1958 recording for Decca, his stereo integrale being my reference set, blazes through the first movement, shaving a minute off the standard timing (about 10 minutes). Indeed, Backhaus flies through the piece as a whole, being the fastest in the first two movements of my five or so versions, with Schnabel and Paul Komen (on fortepiano) catching up in the last one. Schiff's closest timing is also his contemporary, Paul Lewis on Harmonia Mundi. Both have very reasonable timings and neither of them feel like they are dragging or rushing the music to make some sort of statement.

I guess the reason why Schiff's Waldstein (as well as the op. 31 sonatas) is so endearing to me is because it seems well-judged in every regard. Schiff, though less so now than 25 or so years back, can seem a little mannered at times, but I prefer that to a wild stereotypically Romantic performance. This is an inapt metaphor, but it will have to do: think of solo music - especially violin or piano literature - as a novel. The performer is, then, a translator of sorts. Schiff eschews a deeply personalized translation, preferring to get as close as possible to the author's original language. That's not to say that it isn't personal, listening to his lecture on the Waldstein, in particular, will show as much, but it isn't an idiosyncratic or quirky performance. Schiff, as far as I can tell, places himself at the service of Ludwig van Beethoven, as opposed to taking Beethoven's score as an opportunity for showy virtuosity. Schiff's sparkling wit (though, it can tend toward the dry) shows through from time to time, but never to the detriment of Beethoven's work. It is for the best that Schiff is as experienced, mature, and talented as he is. Paul Lewis, who has another great cycle, has his positive factors, but Schiff seems to have edged him out in the works which I have heard.

Also, ECM's packaging deserves note. When issues and reissues are becoming showy, gaudy mini-shrines to the favored artist (Lang Lang's recent Beethoven concerto disc being particularly egregious - to the point of gag-inducing), the simplicity and tastefulness of the ECM release is much welcomed. A simple, minimalist cover with an abstract painting; intelligent and informative liner notes (a 'conversation' with Schiff), and plain CDs. I don't know if this was the intent, but it certainly seems as though the set is really all about the music. That, I can appreciate.

A set well worth the effort to acquire, and - if found - a splendid Christmas gift.


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